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Private Relief  Agency Brings Assistance and Hope to Horn of Africa's Poor - 2004-02-26

In Ethiopia, 110 of every thousand children will die of malnutrition or disease before their first birthday. Seventy-six percent of the country's 68 million people live on less than $2 a day. The relief agency Concern battles grim statistics like these every day in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere around the world.

According to the private relief agency, Concern, 20 years of war and instability has gone hand-in-hand with famine, HIV-AIDS and illiteracy that adds misery to the lives of millions in the Horn of Africa.

Angela O'Neill de Guilio, a veteran aid worker who manages relief programs in Africa for Concern, briefed reporters this week in New York to discuss the current situation.

Ms. de Guilio points outs that Concern has responded to emergency needs of refugees and orphaned children struggling with war, violence, natural disasters and famine in 28 countries.

"Famine and war are quite closely linked because often times in war, people can't plant. And in most of the countries in Africa, if you can't plant, you don't eat," she said. "So if there's a war taking place, and everybody is displaced and ends up in a refugee camp, they're not able to provide for themselves."

In Somalia, for example, there has been no central government since 1991. There are no ministries for health, education, agriculture or justice. The average life expectancy is 47, and only 17 percent of adults can read or write.

Ms. de Guilio says Concern works on a small scale, mainly in and around the country's capital Mogadishu. The agency has opened 18 schools and is trying to boost the health of the country's children through local feeding programs.

She admits the steps taken are small. "There are huge issues for the country to face if and when there's a peace agreement signed, and if and when there's a government in place," she said. "The amount of rebuilding and the amount of support that government is going to need in order to put the country back on the map again in any form is going to be absolutely massive."

Unfortunately, says Ms. de Guilio, this scenario is not an uncommon one. In Ethiopia, some seven million people will need direct food assistance this year. "It's kind of a cyclical situation where you go from famine to famine with a few good years in between. It's an astronomical situation," she said.

In Sudan, which has been at war for 20 years, more than 70,000 children are living on the streets. Ms. de Guilio says these children have lost their parents to HIV-AIDS, which reportedly has infected millions more Sudanese.

Ms. de Guilio stresses that she and her colleagues do not lose hope. "When people say, 'Why do you not feel this is completely hopeless, the problem is too big and the statistics you're talking about are too massive,' it's this woman with eight children that you're impacting, the woman who was able to get a small credit loan because she was able to work on a food-for-work program, and all the individual stories kind of bring it alive that small interventions do matter," she said.

Concern is an international relief organization, founded in 1968 in Ireland, in response to the famine in Nigeria's former breakaway eastern region, Biafra.